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Blog : Mirroring the Mayans


Mirroring the Mayans

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Jo Harley, Director of Purple Cubed, examines collaborative learning as a cost effective boost to your business


Back in 2012, the calendar of the ancient Mayan Civilisation hit the news headlines, as it predicted the end of the world. Thousands of fanatics waited for a doomsday that never came, and if you had been able to go back in time to ask a Mayan why the end of the world didn’t come, they’d have laughed, explaining that their calendars were designed to show the beginnings and ends of eras rather than life itself.

However, looking at the business world, at the start of 2013 the world emerged from an era of boom and bust, one could argue this new era was one of collaboration.

Throughout businesses, more siloes and barriers are being broken every day as people work together cross functionally and across closer geographies on new projects and innovations. Competition for business has evolved into collaboration for growth.

This dissolution is also true for employee development.

Certainly in the UK, thinking of the stereotypical learning day, you’ll probably imagine someone talking to you in a lecture format. This is because it’s how people are programmed to learn and it’s – allegedly - what they feel most comfortable with – from childhood and throughout formal education.

However learning and development in business is currently in a period of flux – moving from classroom based learning, to online learning, to blended learning and now the latest incarnation; collaborative learning.

Thinking again to the Mayan Civilisation, anthropologists believe this community were a great example of ‘collaborative learning’. Their children learned by watching the world around them, by doing things in groups, by being part of something and by sharing what they knew with those around them. In many cases Mayan ‘teachers’ actually learned from the learners in an open forum.

Collaborative learning and cooperative learning* (another HR buzz phrase) are different things; both focusing on learning together in a group. However they differ as follows:

  • In cooperative learning, members work together on a set of issues, or take on specifically assigned roles. In collaborative learning, group members are asked to organise their joint efforts and negotiate amongst themselves who will perform group roles.
  • Group dynamics tend to be more important in cooperative learning. Learners are generally given development in appropriate small-group social skills (e.g. listening, giving feedback, conflict resolution) and there is periodic stocktaking of group dynamics and performance. Collaborative learning tends to start with the assumption that the learners already possess the necessary social skills and the group resolves on its own such issues as participation, performance and conflict.
  • In essence, cooperative learning might be said to be more managed than collaborative learning. There’s a difference in aims and objectives: the former emphasises mastery of facts, development of cognitive, personal, and social skills while the latter is more focused on development of autonomy and knowledge construction.

Essentially collaborative learning is about a group of people who want to know more about a given topic and work together to learn, share and master it. This is an ideal approach to empowering people to solve real life problems and challenges in business.

In a work context this can be achieved simply and effectively so here are our top tips enabling you to build a culture of collaborative learning in your business: 

  • Have the end in sight: Do you have a clear focus of what you would like to learn more about? What are the questions you want to ask – or in the case of development in work, what are the learning goals for the group? Collaborative learning needs structure and a clear goal; whether it’s a very short project or a longer-term development plan.
  • Ask around: There’ll always be people in your workplace or contacts from outside your business who might be keen to learn about the same topics as you. Put a collaboration group together on ideas in which you have a shared interest.
  • Get social: If you don’t have access to a learning Wiki at work, such as Talent Toolbox™: Wiki,  you could set up collaboration groups on LinkedIn, Yammer, Google Hangouts – even Facebook – and invite fellow collaborative learners to join. This is a really useful way to keep all your learning ideas in one place and sharing knowledge. You can also gate your learning community, so you can openly discuss confidential information in a transparent and trusted environment, include market sensitive case studies and so on.
  • Use internal communications: to communicate and educate employees on collaborative learning so they are encouraged to get involved.

Finally, remember the key with collaborative learning is that it should be about the participants sharing knowledge as a group and taking responsibility for the direction of the learnings within pre-agreed boundaries. This isn’t a free for all, and done well it can add real value to both the learner and the business.


(Source: *Learning to Teach; Teaching to Learn: A handbook for NUS Teachers)

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